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Sox and Royals know rotations rule

Teams with best starters make playoffs and astute GMs are swift to act accordingly

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

4:49 PM CDT, November 3, 2012

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Rick Hahn and Dayton Moore know one of the biggest realities of baseball and wasted no time acting upon it.

If you're going to go to the playoffs, you better have a strong starting rotation.

Last year, eight of the 10 postseason teams were in the top half of their leagues in starting pitcher ERA, with seven of the top nine advancing. The only teams that advanced with starting pitching in the second half of teams were the Rangers and Orioles.

The White Sox were seventh in the American League with a 4.15 ERA from a rotation that saw 12 guys make starts, in large part because opening day starter John Danks made only nine. Jake Peavy and Gavin Floyd combined for 387 innings — or 39 percent of the starters' total of 980. They had 37 quality starts between them — 43 percent of the team's 86 overall.

Hahn concluded they were not replaceable, so he exercised Floyd's 2013 contract option while signing Peavy to a two-year extension with a vesting player option for a third year, which kept Peavy from exploring a potentially lucrative market.

Soon he's going to have to make a move to reward his best pitcher. Chris Sale is not arbitration-eligible this time around — he fell 78 days short of Super 2 status — but starts to become an expensive proposition a year from now.

Hahn can wait to provide Sale some security and give the club some cost certainty with a long-term deal for him, especially if it's one along the lines of the one the Rays got Matt Moore to sign a year ago, which guaranteed him $1 million in each of his first three seasons and included club options for his final arbitration season and the first two years when Moore potentially could go on the free-agent market.

Dayton Moore, the Royals' GM, would love to have a young pitcher like Sale. His pitching prospects haven't developed, which is why he now has traded for three veterans in the last two years.

Jonathan Sanchez, who came from the Giants for Melky Cabrera, was a bust. Jeremy Guthrie, acquired from the Rockies in July, pitched so well that he could be tough to re-sign as a free agent. That prompted Moore to take on Ervin Santana, who was being shopped alongside Dan Haren because the Angels weren't going to exercise their contract options.

The Royals believe that they are ready to contend but finished last season with a 5.01 ERA from their starters, ranking 11th in the AL.

"Coming into this offseason, our vision is very clear," Moore told reporters after the trade. "We want to do everything we can possible to upgrade our starting rotation and Ervin Santana clearly does that."

Santana was 9-13 with a 5.16 ERA last season, allowing a majors-worst 39 home runs. He was better in August and September than he was in the first four months of the season, and said on a conference call that he believes he can turn it around and perform like the ace the Royals desperately need.

"I didn't have any physical problems (last season)," Santana said. "Everything was good. I just had bad luck. I was pitching good, and then I didn't have any opportunity to win a lot of games."

Catching the Tigers is going to be problematic for all four rivals in the Central. The pursuers were a combined 66 games below .500 last season, with the Indians and Twins lost causes.

The challenge will be lessened for everyone if it turns out that Anibal Sanchez pitched so well in October (1-2, 1.77 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 201/3 innings) that the Tigers cannot afford to keep him.

He fit in very well alongside Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, and the Tigers' sent their top pitching prospect — right-hander Jacob Turner — to the Marlins to get him. They won't be as strong without him, and know it well.

"We would love to have Anibal Sanchez back if we could," Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski said.

It's always about starting pitching, but you have to play your cards carefully. As bad as the Cabrera-for-Sanchez deal was for the Royals, the Indians' acquisition of Ubaldo Jimenez in 2011 looks even worse.

Was keeping Peavy and Floyd the right move? Will Santana make a difference in Kansas City? There's no way to know but Hahn and Moore will sleep better this winter imagining the best-case scenarios they provide.

Heating it up: Losing to the Tigers might be a little more palatable next year. Closer Jose Valverde is a free agent and won't be coming back, so at least a team losing at Comerica Park won't have to watch the big fellow twist and shout as it gathers the bats and balls in the first-base dugout.

While Scott Boras surely will try to tempt GM Dave Dombrowski to invest in Rafael Soriano, the Tigers are inclined to see if rookie Bruce Rondon has what it takes to be a closer. Dombrowski says that Rondon's fastball averages 100 and can hit 103, and he can throw his breaking ball when he's behind in the count.

He sounds a lot like the pre-injury Joel Zumaya, but Dombrowski says he might be better, as the ball comes out of his hand with less effort. He said he has been inundated with calls from teams asking about the 21-year-old, who had 29 saves at three levels last season, holding opponents to a .172 batting average. He believes he could be a semi-instant success, like Bobby Jenks for the 2005 White Sox.

"I'm not worried about (a lack of experience),'' Dombrowski said.

Valverde was 84-for-89 in save chances the last two seasons but the lasting impression of him was being pulled from his role in the playoffs. His value would seem to have plummeted.

Not unemployed long: Tim Kissner landed on his feet in a hurry after the Cubs decided not to renew his contract as their West Coast cross-checker. He was hired last week as the Mariners' director of international operations, replacing Bob Engle, a scouting legend.

"The Mariners have always been very active internationally, and I've always thought highly of the way they did things," Kissner told the Seattle Times. "My vision is to step in with the staff in place and keep moving forward. … With the new CBA and limits on dollar spending, I'd like to be able to out-scout our opponents."

In addition to going head-to-head with scouts from the Cubs, Kissner will be trying to "out-scout'' Engle, whom the Dodgers hired. If it seems the Dodgers are hiring more than their share of guys lately, that's not a misconception. New owner Mark Walter and Guggenheim Baseball guys from Chicago are continuing to spend big after buying the team along with Magic Johnson last season.

Job well done: The best thing about the Dodgers might be a piece of the franchise that was already in place when the new owners took over. That's 24-year-old ace Clayton Kershaw, who last week was honored with the Roberto Clemente Award for his humanitarian work in Africa.

Kershaw has spent only four seasons in the major leagues but that didn't stop him and his wife Ellen from stepping forward to help high-risk children in Zambia. They not only have provided funding for schools and an orphanage but also have been hands on during several trips there.

Kershaw admits it is humbling to be recognized with an award that usually goes to older players. The Dodgers have to be thrilled to have a young gun this mature. He's two years away from free agency, set to hit the market at the same time as Verlander. The price to keep them off the market will be huge.

The last word: "The Giants had a great year. They won the games they needed to win. I think in 2013 the LA Dodgers are going to be the team everyone wants to beat, tries to beat.'' — Brandon League, who signed a three-year deal to be the Dodgers' closer.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers